I wanted to do this post after I found the copy of the Bulletin, an English language journal from Brussels, that had an article Rightscalled “I know my rights…or do I?” (7 Nov 2001). The basic gist of it was that Belgium had a very different take on rights compared to Anglo-American. I’ll post a scan of that cover when I find it.

A personal example, which I have mentioned before, was of the Mormon Missionaries who were arrested by the Belgian police since the Police weren’t sure what exactly Mormon missionaries did. Of course, this was well before the film “Orgazmo” was released (sorry, I had to put that in). Anyway, Belgian law allows for the police to arrest someone for 48 hours and hold them just to check them out. The Mormons were fed a baguette and a litre of coffee every 4 hours. Something which doesn’t happen in the USA. These poor buggers are suffering since they can’t drink coffee and don’t understand why the police can just pull them off the street for no reason.

Pesonally, I thought it would be a good idea to use the Cinquantinare as a shortcut home from a meeting only to be accounsted by half the Brussels police. I stood still and answered their questions since I was only going home. I handed them my passport when they asked for my ID, which meant they had the only cop who spoke English tell me “it was very dangerous to be in the park at night”. I was tempted to respond that there were enough cops there that the park should have been pretty safe. I was told to go back the way I came.

The gist of this is that I hear a lot of talk from Americans about rights of all kinds, civic, individual, collective, god given, pre-exisiting, natural, human, and so on, but what the fuck does that really mean in practise?

Rights are entitlements or permissions, usually of a legal or moral nature. Rights are of vital importance in the fields of law and ethics.

The declaration of a right is an act comparable to law-giving, in the way that kings gave law. It is essentially a command or decree: do this, don’t do that. Implicitly, the law is intended for enforcement, and is assumed to create an entitlement to enforce it. So declarations of rights are ‘rule’, in the political science sense. Declarations of rights are therefore fundamentally political acts, acts of policy. Anyone who issues and enforces declarations of rights is exercising political power. As you would expect, it is normally governments, and inter-governmental organisations, which issue the declarations. It is not an activity of oppressed individuals, as suggested by the propaganda.

Some people in history have indeed claimed rights – but most have had their rights declared for them by others. They are not allowed to renounce these ‘declared rights’. The idea that a person must accept all rights declared for them, clearly contradicts the idea of political freedom. The human-rights tradition includes no element of consent. It is these aspects, which make the doctrine of human rights a license for oppression. Generally, rights have the following characteristics:

* a right is declared by one person or organisation, for another person
* usually, a right is declared by one person or organisation, for all human beings
* the consent of the other person or persons is not necessary, for the right to be declared
* there are certain actions (or restraint from certain actions) which constitute ‘respect’ of the right
* these actions (or restraint from action) may legitimately be taken
* there is usually a moral duty to take these actions (or restrain from certain action)
* the person with the ‘right’ has no moral grounds to oppose this action of respecting – even if they have not consented to the right in the first place
* therefore there are certain actions which may legitimately be taken against another, since they fulfil a moral obligation to respect a right, and these actions do not constitute a harm
* since there is a moral obligation to these actions, they are not wrong, even if consent for them is explicitly refused, and even if the person affected considers them a harm

Those are far-reaching claims by the rights theorists, and the human rights lobby. It is obvious, even from this summary, that the logic of rights interferes with the principle of moral autonomy.

Formally, what happens when a right is declared? The standard answer is: it creates a moral duty to respect it. But that is not all that happens. A right, once its existence is recognised, effectively divides all possible human actions into three categories: actions which respect that right, violations of the right, and actions which are neutral with respect to that right. Declaring a right is a declaration of a desired course of action, not necessarily action by the holders of the right. Implicitly, the declaration of a right promotes and legitimises actions to enforce that right.

Any harm to others can be justified by claiming that it is intended to respect certain ‘rights’, even if the victim does not know of their existence. Likewise, the right can be misinterpreted from what was originally intended to cause social harm. This is the case with the Second Amendment, which was originally intended to guarantee a Swiss style military to prevent a large standing army.

Somehow, that original intent has been perverted to prevent any regulation of firearms. A right to armed self-defence has been found where it is not explicitly present in the text. Thus a misinterpretation of the Second Amendment works against the original intent of the text, security of the free state.

Rights are not universal, they are not even ‘western’ or ‘European’. Rights are clearly political in their nature. They are created by humans, not god, and specific humans for a specific reason. It is not in itself good to respect a right. Every right is itself subject to ethical assessment, to moral judgment. It can be wrong to respect a right, even a right that has been allegedly consented.

Even more interesting is the case when rights conflict: for example property rights and the current interpretation of “the right to keep and bear arms”. If a property owner disagrees with the use of firearms, say gun free zones in Universities or on Secure Installations, should the “right to keep and bear arms” trump the property owner’s right to keep firearms from their property?

Likewise, if the current interpretation of the Second Amendment right leads to societal costs in the form of additional police hours at mass shooting sites, the cost of treating victims of mass shootings and so on, should that right be respected? Should those who claim that right be bear the societal costs in the form of increased taxation? Take Chris Rock’s example
Would it make more sense to just tax the fuck out of bullets and reloading supplies while not bothering with firearms in “deference to the Second Amendment right”?

The basic point I am making is that the US tends to make a great deal of rights. These rights impose the value system where they originate: the European liberal tradition, in particular Anglo-American liberalism. One finds that rights are not as much of an issue in other countries as they are in the United States.


Posted 23/11/2009 by lacithedog in Bills of rights, freedom, right, rights

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